Understanding the Role of a Teacher

When I was seven years old, my mother took me to a new, strict piano teacher. I had been playing for two years, and had already decided that I wanted to be a pianist when I “grew up.” My teacher assigned me some of the Two-Part Inventions by J.S. Bach, and at one lesson we spent the entire hour on three measures. Of course, to me as a child, this was torture. The immediate result of this in-depth work was that I played three measures of Bach significantly better than I had before the lesson. But I learned some other things that day as well.

First, my teacher showed me that Bach was worth this effort. One of the joys and struggles of my chosen art is that I never feel “done.” In the music of Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms, there is always something more to be discovered. Artur Schnabel, one of the great pianists of the 20th century, and my teacher’s teacher, said, “I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed.  . . Unless a piece of music presents a never-ending problem, it doesn’t interest me too much.”

Second, he made me realize that I was worth his time and effort. He could have spent a more relaxing hour simply making a few nice complimentary remarks (“What a talented boy!”) and assigning some new repertoire. Though he spent the time criticizing my every little flaw, I learned that, in my dear teacher’s opinion, I should never give up.

Nearly 15 years ago, I began my own teaching career at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. My “audition” for the job consisted of teaching students for a few hours in front of the piano faculty. As I look back, I realize how little I understood then about the role of a teacher. I used to see my job narrowly as listening to some Chopin and helping a student to improve it for one hour. In fact, my main interest in life, impractical as it is, is searching for the very best way to play a phrase of music. I think I could be happy as a kind of musical hermit, living on a little rocky Island and practicing for an audience of birds. Part of teaching is like that: for that hour nothing matters but minute musical details.

It is hard to say if people choose instruments that suit them or if the study of an instrument helps form their personality. But on average, pianists are the least sociable of musicians. It is possible for us, unlike most of our colleagues, to spend all our time playing by ourselves, and the burden of our uniquely large repertoire sends us scurrying off to the practice room at all hours of the day and night. I doubt that my “hermit” fantasy would have much appeal for a cellist or a soprano, but many a Boston Conservatory at Berklee piano student has successfully auditioned for us precisely because of hours spent at solitary, monastic labor.

It is when they arrive that I find I need to help some of them learn to reach out, to connect with others. A career cannot be developed in solitude (unless you really do want only birds for your audience). Most successful piano careers involve some combination of activities, most of which require collaboration of some sort—whether with musical colleagues on stage, with students (and their parents) in a teaching studio, or with concert presenters who want to connect musicians and audiences. As a teacher, I have become more aware in recent years of the urgency of helping my students to connect to others, even while I beg them to spend more time perfecting their craft.

In the world of classical music, we are constantly wondering if there will be work for us. Yet as the pianist Charles Rosen notes, “The death of classical music is its oldest continuing tradition.” I have seen many deserving young students make careers in classical music, but this happens only by hard work both in the solitary practice room and in the interactive, collaborative real world.  And in this day and age, a piano teacher serves his students first as a provider of musical insight, and also as a motivator, a psychologist, an impresario, and a (musical) matchmaker.